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From townscape to skyscape: in an edited extract from a lecture due to be given to mark the 75th anniversary of the University of Sao Paulo later this month, Robert Tavernor from the University of Bath analyzes the future of London's distinctive skyline.

Urban design as art

The Viennese architect and planner, Camillo Sitte, was the first modern to describe urban planning as essentially an art. In City Planning according to Artistic Principles (1889) he articulated his admiration for the civic and artistic character of pre-industrial European towns and cities rather than the relentless straight-edged, mid-nineteenth century Boulevards that Baron Haussmann sliced through medieval Paris. Sitte argued that the intuitive creative drives that underlay medieval examples of more varied urban spaces could be presented as principles: his contemporaries considered them to be no more than happy accidents. Sitte reasoned that city planning could and should be regarded as an art, and one based on the spatial and formal compositions that preceded the considerable population explosion of his century. He referred to the wisdom of the ancients as proof for his assertions, especially the architectural and urban accounts of Vitruvius and Alberti: the basic idea of his book he wrote 'is to go to school with Nature and the old masters [...] in matters of town planning'.


In London, the principles of Classical design promulgated by the 'old masters' were filtered mainly through Palladianism and two dynastic monarchies, the Stuarts and Hanoverians, who oversaw the urban transformation and expansion of medieval London. Georgian London, built during an unbroken monarchical span of 116 years between 1714 and 1830, is characterized by regular geometry, symmetry and grand Classical squares lined with palatial terraces. The Victorians built on this example, and to a grander scale, retaining or extending the underlying spatial structure and urban character of London. Their larger buildings affected the grain of the existing built form, by amalgamating several plots to create larger edifices that were usually bulkier than those they replaced. London's skyline acquired a new silhouette, but the changes brought by the nineteenth century were not as radical as those of the twentieth century, when commercial and residential towers were built increasingly tall.

There are no direct answers to the challenge that height presents to the image of a historic city like London in the writings of Vitruvius, Alberti and Sitte: they were concerned with a human-scaled environment. Judging by recent planning proposals in London, the challenge of height is set to increase. Towers--residential and commercial--are being designed for London that will be the tallest in Europe. Renzo Piano has recently been granted planning permission for London's tallest building yet, for a mixed residential and commercial tower that will be 303m tall when completed in 2009. Consequently, there is renewed interest in defining appropriate guiding principles that will enable tall buildings to sit well along the finest architectural and urban successes that characterize London. Intriguingly, many of the traditional principles advocated by Sitte have been absorbed into official planning policy guidance in the last decade in England and Wales, establishing a context within which tall buildings are being designed. This re-engagement with Sitte's urban ideals represents a curious volte-face. During most of the twentieth century, tall buildings were a powerful symbol of a new political and social ideology, which attempted to sweep away a traditional attachment to the forms and spaces of the pre-industrial city, of traditional streets and squares lined with buildings.

In London, St Paul's Cathedral and its surroundings have become a battleground for modernists and traditionalists. In longer views, its physical and visual relation to the dynamically changing commercial centre of London continues to provide the focus for an extraordinary debate: one that is likely to have a dramatic effect on London's appearance during the early twenty-first century.

London's skyline and the impact of the dome of St Paul's

St Paul's is at the western end of the City of London, the 'square mile' originally settled by the Romans. By the seventeenth century, the city was overcrowded, and the Great Fire of 1666 thrived on its density, devastating a large section of its medieval urban fabric. Christopher Wren proposed a radical replacement masterplan for the City, but this was rejected by the authorities in favour of a quick rebuild on the foundations of the former medieval street pattern. In fact, the most radical physical changes were affected by legislation introduced in the 1667 London Building Act, which succeeded in restricting the use of flammable building materials and building heights to a maximum of four storeys. Well into the nineteenth century, non-public buildings were kept low, and buildings proposed higher than 30m required special Metropolitan Sanction. Wren did of course succeed in replacing the burnt out old St Paul's with a great Baroque-inspired edifice, and his cathedral grew to dominate, both physically and spiritually, the relatively chaotic physical scene that surrounded it.


The great domed form of St Paul's has provided the primary focus for historic views of London, and because the medieval grain of the Gity is narrow and winding, the best of these are to be had from across the River Thames, to the south and west. Some of the most famous views of Wren's St Paul's have been taken from Somerset House River Terrace. It is well placed for a panoramic view, being located on a major bend of the River Thames, roughly midway between the twin cities of London, Westminster and the City, offering views of each. Paintings by Antonio Canaletto (mid-eighteenth century) and John O'Connor (late nineteenth century) clearly illustrate the changing setting of St Paul's down the centuries. They depict quite different scenes: of London as a great maritime centre, an elegant Venice of the north; and as the capital of industrial might and global authority. The square mile of the City has since become a thriving global financial centre, and London is in the premier league of world-class cities, rivalled only by New York and Tokyo. It is not unreasonable to suggest therefore that its image should demonstrate and be emblematic of the considerable power and authority of London as it is now not as it was once imagined to be.

Certainly, this is the positive view expressed by Corporation of London's planners today, who regard tall buildings as desirable assets that will meet practical demands on limited space and will project an image of an international, thriving location. Their vision is not universally condoned. Traditional urbanists, and the heritage lobbies such as English Heritage, argue that tall buildings undermine the 'timeless' character of valued historic monuments, and distant views of St Paul's are frequently used in evidence--by progressives and traditionalists--for and against tall buildings. Yet, paradoxically, despite these differences, there is a growing consensus regarding what constitutes the principles of good urban design.


Modern London: urban renaissance through good design

Several publications produced between 1999 and 2002 give meaning to the art of urban design in England and Wales today. The government-sponsored think-tank, the Urban Taskforce, produced a report, Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999/2002), which emphasizes the value of good design for the urban environment as a primary means to reversing exodus from English towns and cities. The report reasons that urban renaissance will be stimulated by re-establishing 'the quality of urban design and architecture as part of our everyday urban culture' by establishing 'a new vision for urban regeneration founded on the principles of design excellence, social well-being and environmental responsibility within a viable economic legislative framework'. They believe that the key to regeneration will be cities with densely populated, compact, well-connected cores, which will encourage people to travel by public transport, to cycle and walk, and it goes on to sketch out ten key principles of urban design that will encourage the creation of 'more liveable places'.

Another influential publication is By Design. Urban design in the planning system: towards better practice (2000), produced by a now defunct government department (DETR) and a government quango, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE). Significantly, By Design defines urban design as the 'art of making places for people', and it describes a 'planning toolkit' comprising of seven key principles or objectives of urban design that need to be mastered by would-be urban designers. There is some overlap between the two reports: both are concerned to promote character in townscape by reinforcing locally distinctive patterns of development and culture, and by establishing a high quality public realm in which people are placed before traffic.

Although never explicitly acknowledged as a primary source, there is a correlation between the ideas of Sitte and the planning toolkit of By Design. While Sitte filtered the natural planning and design approach of Vitruvius and Alberti, Sitte's notion that urban planning is an art--that we should strive to create 'places' connected by a hierarchy of traditional squares and streets for the pleasure of people--has been accepted as 'natural' commonsense in By Design. The reversion to historic notions of place-making represents a considerable victory for traditional urbanists. Their success is due in part to the fact that there have been only a handful of Modernist urban triumphs in the UK, while most were unmitigated physical and social disasters.

The Architectural Review also assisted this turnaround, by trumpeting the virtues of pre-industrial European place-making loud and long. It promoted a William Morris-Sittesque urban vision between 1947 and 1958 through a series of essays written by Gordon Cullen and others who defined a humanist reinterpretation of Modernism under the banner of Townscape. Cullen defined Townscape as the 'art of relationship' and the 'art of environment'. Like Sitte, he preferred the formal and spatial associations of form and space that appeared 'natural' to someone experiencing somewhere on foot: places that appeared to have been shaped by time and necessity, rather than the pragmatic dictates of urban regulators, especially traffic and lighting engineers.

Cullen was one of a powerful group at the Review at that time, which included J. M. Richards, Nikolaus Pevsner, and Osbert Lancaster: they retained a collective affinity for the art of place-making, and largely opposed the French and German rationalism that had by then attained an intellectual and moral high ground in schools of architecture. Cullen published The Concise Townscape (1961) on the back of his essays and the Review's proprietor, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, wrote a parallel, but now less well-known volume, The Italian Townscape (1963), under his pen name Ivor de Wolfe. The Concise Townscape was a more popular success, partly because Cullen drew compelling images presented as elegant snapshot cartoons of familiar city scenery. Like Canaletto, he provided evocations, picture-postcard memories, of a vanishing, or already vanished urban order. Townscape was inevitably dismissed by the Modernist architectural elite for being reactionary and intellectually narrow in outlook, and its influence languished in Britain until the Prince of Wales, spurred on by the success of his own architectural and urban Vision of Britain (1989), engaged the talents of the architect-theorist Leon Krier to masterplan Poundbury as a 'historic' townscape extension of Dorchester.


Townscape and visual assessment

Modernists have generally deplored what they regard to be the mediocrity of the Prince's townscape vision, but this approach has strong intellectual roots of its own and it has wide public appeal. Recent governmental planning policies provide the structure for traditional place-making. The government's Planning Policy Guidance Note 1 (PPG1, 1997) places the emphasis on 'good design' to help 'promote sustainable development; improve the quality of the existing environment; attract business and investment; and reinforce civic pride and a sense of place'. Places are created by time and PPG15, on Planning and the Historic Environment (1994), describes the general government commitment to preserving the historic environment, and it provides a full statement of policies for the identification and protection of historic buildings, conservation areas and other essential ingredients of the historic environment.

Townscape has even entered the official planning lexicon: the effective implementation of these polices being judged through 'Townscape and Visual Assessments', a key chapter in an Environmental Statement. The ES describes the use of materials, details, scale and massing in a proposed development, which is demonstrated through drawings, photographs and visualizations. These combine with professional judgement to provide an objective and subjective assessment of the proposals. Townscape and Visual Assessments are typically used to identify key views of the development site in relation to existing buildings and areas of historic and architectural importance. It contributes to a wide-ranging spatial masterplan of part of the town or city being developed, something that Towards an Urban Renaissance and By Design consider essential to the urban design process.

The relevance of a clearly presented three-dimensional framework of buildings and public spaces is being taken up with some vigour in The London Plan, a spatial development strategy for London being produced for the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who heads the Greater London Authority (GLA). The London Plan is being developed to ensure an appropriate mix of buildings and land use for the capital. A preliminary document, The draft London Plan (2002), was subject to public examination last year, and it is evident that the emcrging policies are very much in tune with contemporary concerns: 'Good design is central to all the objectives of this plan'. The London Plan embodies 12 main policies designed to promote world-class architecture and design, and--as with Towards an Urban Renaissance--a fundamental objective is the compact city. The Mayor acknowledges that the desired compactness will inevitably lead to new buildings having greater height. Subsequent policies therefore focus on the size, scale and consequent impact of tall buildings on London's built heritage and skyline. Location of tall buildings, and the relevant viewing positions from which to assess their likely impact will therefore be key issues for the future.

However, very tall buildings are not an inevitable consequence of compactness. The government has concluded that their contribution to urban renaissance was 'very limited' and that the 'proposition that tall buildings are necessary to prevent suburban sprawl is impossible to sustain. They do not necessarily achieve higher densities than mid- or low-rise development and in some cases are a less efficient use of spaces than alternatives. They have, for the most part, the advantages and disadvantages of other high density buildings'. (House of Commons. Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Tall Buildings: Memoranda submitted to the Urban Affairs Sub-committee, 22 January 2002.) In fact, the Committee's research indicates that 'Tall buildings are more often about power, prestige, status and aesthetics than efficient development'. Tall buildings may not be necessary, but the report recognizes that tall buildings are certainly objects of desire: 'There is one powerful and irrefutable argument in favour of tall buildings: some people find them very beautiful. The Mayor of London is delighted by the Manhattan skyline. His love of tall buildings is shared by many architects and others'.

The art of designing tall buildings

It is not clear how nmerous these 'others' are. It is probable that public dislike of tall buildings outweighs those who find them beautiful. However, the notion that they could be beautiful if well sited and designed--in contrast to the prosaic post-war residential slab blocks that sprang up seemingly randomly across London--was first mooted in the 1960s, when the first wave of commercial tall buildings were being built in central London. The Royal Fine Art Commission (the forerunner of CABE) complained in its 18th Report of 1960-62 of the poor and inappropriate siting of tall buildings. But noted that 'exceptionally high buildings look better in the form of towers rather than slabs and a carefully arranged cluster of towers may be preferable to a number of isolated ones'. In 1969, a governmental-sponsored Public Inquiry, the Layfield Committee, recommended the creation of a High Buildings Map that would control where tall buildings would be permitted, and a Skyline Protection Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1977, which recommended the protection of views by designation that would be similar to the status afforded to listed buildings and conservation areas. None of these recommendations passed to the statute books. However, the notion of 'clusters' of towers, combined with the protection from the intrusion of tall buildings of important views across London, have together proved influential in relation to views of St Paul's Cathedral from the west. It was demonstrated at a major Public Inquiry in 1976 that a tall building proposed for Broadgate, next to Liverpool Street Station--almost a mile north-east of the cathedral--would be seen in relation to the silhouette of the dome of St Paul's when viewed from Henry VIII's Mound in Richmond Park, some 10 miles to the west. Planning permission was refused and a vast low-lying groundscraper built instead.

The importance of distant views in this and other cases led to several follow-up studies through the 1980s, and the government responded with its Strategic Guidance for London Planning Authorities (RPG 3A, 1991). This established a list of 10 Strategic Views across London--eight of which focus on St Paul's Cathedral, and two on the Palace of Westminster (the seat of government and a World Heritage Site)--which was intended to prevent tall buildings from visually interfering with the scttings and silhoucttes of these internationally recognizable landmarks. It had been observed in the late 1970s, that tall buildings seen behind St Paul's can have two effects: they can either create an effective backcloth of building mass with which the character of the Cathedral can be compared, or spoil its distinctive silhouette by obscuring and diffusing its clear outlines (City of London Development Plan, Subject Study St Paul's Heights, 1978: para 11.11, p88). The 'backcloth' referred to is the group of tall buildings to the north-east of St Paul's. Known as the City or Eastern Cluster, it comprises a loose grouping of high-rise buildings, which protrude above a general plateau of mid-height commercial buildings, and which for the last few decades has had Tower 42 (T42--the former National Westminster Bank tower) as its most prominent structure. T42 is around 180m in height, and is surrounded by a lower tier a plateau of buildings--mostly ranging between 80m and 120m in height. The latest financial boom of the late 1990s has seen Corporation of London planners and property developers exploring the potential for expanding and consolidating the Eastern Cluster. The most recent addition is Swiss Re, designed by Foster and Partners and completed recently (AR November 2003): it has a similar height to T42. The Heron Tower, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, was granted planning approval by the Secretary of State in 2002, and it will join T42 and Swiss Re among the tallest--upper tier--of office buildings in the Eastern Cluster. These are tall, slender towers with narrow floor plates (compared to typical US dimensions that have been adopted at Canary Wharf), because of the small plot sizes that characterize the City's ancient urban grain. As the RFAC predicted in the early 1960s, a grouping of tall slender towers has a pleasing appearance, and the overall effect here is to create a physical mass that is hill-like in profile and which provides a unified backdrop to St Paul's when viewed from the west. It is evident from sophisticated computer generated visualization prepared for the Heron Tower public inquiry that, when viewed from the west, St Paul's continues to remain distinguishable and distinguished in the City's skyline.

The precise character of this particular assembly of tall buildings will not last for long. The dynamic of commercial change in the City is rapid, and many new towers have been planned for the Eastern Cluster in recent months. If built, they will stretch its boundaries and challenge its present maximum heights. The evolution of the cluster's form will require careful--artistic--management, and a continuing three-dimensional appraisal will be essential, of both the townscape experience at street level, and the skyscape in medium and long views. It is anticipated that the Mayor's spatial plan for London will concern itself with both urban dimensions.

Meanwhile, the most useful attempt to reconcile the different attitude to tall buildings has appeared in a joint publication by English Heritage (EH)--the government's guardians of the nation's historic built heritage and CABE, the principal overseers of design quality in the developing built environment. The EH/CABE Guidance on Tall Buildings (2003) recommends that any proposal for a tall building should be of the highest quality of design, aesthetically and environmentally, and that proposals should be considered in context, in the round. In particular, it recommends that these appraisals should identify 'those elements that create local character and other important features and constraints, including streetscape, scale, height, urban grain, natural topography, significant views of skylines, landmark buildings and areas and their settings, including backdrops, and important local views, prospects and panoramas. Opportunities where tall buildings might enhance the overall townscape, or where the removal of past mistakes might achieve a similar outcome, should be highlighted'.

Clusters of tall buildings are being planned at major transport interchanges in London, and they are proposed or are already growing in other UK cities. Traditionalists are right to be concerned about potentially harmful impact of tall buildings on historic settings. But, ultimately, the art of urban design is to transcend time, to provide continuity with the past as well as meet the needs of now and the future. A complex not simple--multi-disciplinary approach that pulls together the art and science of urban design is perhaps the best way to balance effectively the demands of time and necessity. So the historian has as relevant a role in the process of urban design as the architect, planner and politician. Sitte acknowledged this more than a century ago.
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Title Annotation:Theory
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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